They may be farming in the heart of Lancashire, but the Verity’s family farm demonstrates a strong New Zealand influence as grassland management captures the limelight. Neil Ryder visits the award winning dairy unit.
In many ways Radholme Laund Farm would make a near perfect upland sheep unit, with land running up to 305 metres (1,000ft) above sea level and some steep slopes descending down to a river valley.
But in actual fact, the farm, near Whitewell, Lancashire, is home to a successful specialist 350-cow dairy unit run by the Verity family.
Mark Verity, who farms in partnership with his parents, Stuart and Kathleen, was named as the Dairy Innovator of the Year in last year’s British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
He says: “Winning the 2015 British Farming Award for Dairy Innovator of the Year just gave everyone in the farm team a real buzz factor and showed that their hard work had been noted.
On the subject of innovation, the farm was host to a recent RABDF open day where optimising grass use for profit was at the forefront of discussion.
It is clear the family’s success is based on attention to detail in the measurements and record-keeping of their farming business.
Stuart Verity took over the tenancy of the 243-hectare (600-acre) Duchy of Lancaster farm in 1976.
Back then the farm was a mixed sheep and dairy unit but the family have since bought 40ha (100 acres) at Mitton, about seven miles from the home unit, which is used for silaging and youngstock grazing.
After Mark finished college he spent three months in New Zealand in 1998 before becoming a full partner in the business in 2010.
The herd is autumn-calved and grazed on a rotational system designed to optimise grass usage
The farm’s grassland management at Radholme Laund has been heavily influenced by New Zealand systems, though carefully adapted to suit their land and soil.
The dairy herd of 350 cows is made up of 75 per cent Holstein and 25 per cent cross-bred animals.
The latter are a three-way cross using Jersey bulls on a Holstein, Swedish Red on the Jersey cross Holstein and then finally back to a Holstein, maximising the hybrid vigour.
“Our Holsteins are not the extreme type as they simply would not cope with the weather conditions on this farm,” explains Mark.
“They would probably blow over or have a heart attack up here. We are gradually increasing the numbers of cross-bred animals in the herd as we believe the milk market will increasingly focus on fat and protein.
“Jersey blood was also chosen as they are easier calving on maiden heifers, were smaller and better on their feet.
“The Swedish Red was introduced as a good third cross as they fit well into our grazing system, giving us good yields with high levels of fats and proteins, with the additional advantage of the breed being able to walk the long distances required on our grazing model.”
Supplying Arla AMBA, the herd is averaging 8,200 litres at 4.3 per cent fat and 3.35 per cent protein, with cell count of 107 and a bactoscan of 16.
“This farm is not suited to spring calving because it’s just too wet for an early turnout in spring and would risk damaging our swards,” adds Mark.
Instead, he manages an autumn calving system starting from September, typically through to January 10, although their aim is always to try and finish before the end of December.
This year he expects to calve 225 cows in September and another 90 in October.
“This has been made possible by our AI and breeding technician, Simon Redcliffe, who serves all the cows and has the 125 heifers synchronised over two days,” he says.
All herd replacements are home-bred and the system is heavily reliant on heifers calving down at two years of age.
“Failure to do this means calving at three years and the unacceptable additional costs this involves.”
With milk prices regularly hitting the headlines, our Dairy Innovator of the Year award will look to those dairy producers who are positive about the future of the industry and are working to build a successful and profitable enterprise. You will be striving to produce milk more efficiently, or perhaps instigating and developing change in core areas including production, health and welfare, nutrition and fertility. Maybe you know a dairy farmer whose approach is helping carve out a successful business.
Unusually for a dairy farm, Radholme Laund has a weighing unit with calves and heifers being weighed to measure progress.
Calf rearing is the responsibility of Mark’s mother, Kathleen. A milk taxi is used to feed calves, with intakes of up to eight litres each day.
“Our aim is to maximise calf growth over the first few weeks of life as this influenced the lifetime performance of the cow, says Mark.
After weaning, calves are put on a straw and pellet diet and they continue to be fed using feed trailers after turnout, including some concentrate.
It is important to achieve an average of 0.75-0.85kg daily liveweight gain from birth through to calving.
Dry cows are given minerals and moved to a separate field three weeks before calving.
Care is taken not to use fertiliser on these fields less than six weeks earlier as it risks upsetting the mineral balance for dry cows.
Winter feeding for milkers is based on silage, brewers’ grains, distillery by-products, pot ale, a rumen protected fat, and yeast, providing maintenance with parlour concentrate fed according to yield. In summer, grass availability is measured and managed accordingly.
“For summer, we try and get the cows out as early as possible in April, though this will depend on weather and ground conditions,” explains Mark.
“If conditions worsen, we will not hesitate to bring them back inside again, but even a week or so grazing is the cheapest feed.”
Key to the grazing system is a constantly growing network of farm tracks started by Mark’s father, though they now, as Mark readily admits, extend much further than his father would have ever envisaged.
A further 350m is planned for this year to open up more land, make better use of grass and improve milk from forage.
“These tracks enable the milking cows to move around the farm under all conditions, reducing the need to walk cows through one paddock to get to another, reducing poaching.”
To protect cows’ feet, the tracks are also covered in second-hand industrial belts and, more recently, used astroturf.
“The latter has worked well but does become slippy under wet conditions after two years,” says Mark.
“This is easily dealt with by power washing the tracks, much to the amusement of the Veritys’ neighbours. Both surfaces are secured by giant pins.”
Cows remain out until mid-November, whenever possible, calving outside but this is – once again - weather dependent.
“All cows are moved to a fresh paddock each day, so they don’t start eating any regrowth, with the stocking rate being about three cows per ha.”
The family is building more cow tracks, covered with industrial belts and astro turf to stop poaching
Grassland is reseeded as and when necessary using ‘easy’ rye-grasses, mostly Aberystwyth types, and some clover.
Conventional reseeding is used on the flatter land, with minimum tillage techniques used on the more difficult, sloping land.
“Higher clover content is used on slopes to help reduce the need for as much fertiliser,” explains Mark.
“One of the problems we have is herbicides used to control dock also kill clovers and, while some spraying is carried out, I try and make use of spot treatment where possible.”
The herd is deliberately not pushed to achieve lower grazing residuals as, with a primarily Holstein herd, the effects can soon be seen in less milk in the bulk tank.
“While it is not our policy to chase yields, we just believe dropping litres to hit residual grass targets is seen as unhelpful.
“We aim to produce 3,000 litres from forage, though we are not quite there yet, and we are able to make a margin with our current milk price.
“We sell to Arla AMBA on a contract with the emphasis on fat and protein.”
Looking to the future, Mark and his family want to just keep improving – whether by keeping costs down or by producing more milk from grass.
“This is a team operation involving our family, our four employees, and our consultants and advisers.
“We have a long-term tenancy and have been steadily investing over the years so we have no plans to make any major investment in the short-term.
“It is impossible to say how long the current pressures on the dairy industry will last and we just have to stay as efficient as possible.”